Without Rancour And Without Dishonour

“[Gandhi was] as much a benefactor of Britain as of his own country. He made it impossible for us to go on ruling India, but at the same time he made it possible for us to abdicate without rancour and without dishonour.â€? –Arnold Toynbee

A really nonviolent (and therefore really liberal, and really democratic) attitude towards politics would not look very much like what the political entries on this and previous incarnations of my weblog have often looked like. I have definitely engaged in demonization of the people in power who are doing bad things. It’s a difficult thing to state the truth about terrible things that people have done, are doing, or are planning to do, without taking that second step into saying that they are terrible people and turning it into a big “us against them” game. I’ve definitely taken the easy way out, moved from righteous anger to self-righteous hatred. All I can say in my defense is that halfway through my life I’m only barely starting to seriously think about politics, and I am making a beginner’s mistakes.

I’m glad a lot of other people have been in the game, and have done much better than me. I’m going to see if I can do a bit better myself, cutting back on the “rancour” and attempts to inflict “dishonour.”

So as far as politics in the blog goes — I’ll probably still be posting things which outrage or appall me, but I’ll be a lot less likely to interpret them as indications that “Dubya sucks!” or “Rethuglicans are composed of pure evil!” or whatever. It’s not about who’s to blame, it’s about what should be happening and what shouldn’t be. If I post something appalling it will be because people should know about it so they can intelligently object to it, and if there’s something in their power to do about it, do it. Not so that we can see who’s evil and who’s good. We’re all quite evil, and we’re all quite good.

Knowledge Is Disempowerment.

It can be anyway.

Years back I got the idea that it would be cool to play with “constructed languages.” I read the Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder and banged out a couple silly fragments of languages, and then I joined the CONLANG-L mailing list, and I started buying and devouring the sorts of academic linguistics books you can find at Border’s or Barnes & Noble’s. (I had been interested in linguistics anyway due to my obsession with the linguistics/philosophy/cognitive science of people like George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Mark Turner, Ronald Langacker, and company).

I learned more and more but it was never enough. I formed strong opinions on different theories, much stronger opinions than I had any right to hold (as is my wont). But the more I learned, the less I did. I tried to actually make stuff up but I couldn’t anymore. All I had was this big head full of knowledge.

Be careful when you get into a new field of creative endeavor and decide you have to learn all the tricks of the trade, especially if you’re a book-knowledge addict like me. Knowledge is, after all, only the knowledge that other people have gained through direct investigation and experience. Doing the same investigation and having the same experiences, you might have come up with different knowledge. Learning from books is just learning what other people have said about things they have seen and experienced. Be careful not to worship it. Be careful not to overdose on it. It’s a map, not the territory, as they say.

I thought of this recently because I’ve been reading Lore Sjöberg lately and he had a piece which begins, “There’s something to be said for ignorant enthusiasm…” which shows he’s gone through some shadow of the same thing and that’s one reason why we haven’t seen any new Bandwidth Theater cartoons for like a year — he actually tried to learn how to animate “right” — that is, “right” according to the OTHER people in the industry who do it, instead of “right” meaning whatever works for him in the real world — and he’s finding that it’s making it hard for him to actually do anything.

So learn the “right” way to do things at your peril. You may actually be better off ignorant and enthusiastic.

New Year’s Resolutions

You can be invincible,
if you never go into a contest,
which is not in your power to win.

Look out lest seeing some more honored
or with great power or otherwise blessed with fame,
you are ever carried away by the impression.

For if the essence of the good is in your power,
neither envy nor jealousy have a place;
and you yourself will not wish to be a magistrate,
nor a president or consul, but free.

–Epictetus, here, (another translation here, thanks to MeFi.

Epictetus’ advice is interesting to understand in the context of New Year’s Resolutions, and also the book One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer. It is about taking small steps. It is about applying to one’s personal life the business philosophy called “Kaizen” in Japan, and based on the work of W. Edwards Deming, a brilliant management theorist whose ideas are constantly referred to but almost never actually put into practice in America.

Kaizen is about improving one’s business by small and unambiguously achieveable steps, rather than dramatic “innovations.” This is of course alien to American big business, because it’s the big changes which impress the stock market and inflate your stock options, even if they end up ruining the business.

Anyway, Maurer’s book suggests trying to improve one’s life by means of small, nonthreatening steps, which are insignificant one by one but which add up to change.

There are a lot of things about the book that make sense to me, but I haven’t actually done anything with Kaizen yet. My wife and I thought of Kaizenning ourselves towards exercise, but we chose a step that wasn’t small enough and ended up not doing it. (That’s the test of whether you’re doing it right: if the step is non-trivial enough that you fail to do it, it was too big a step.)

So I’m trying to think of areas where I’d like to improve my life, and completely trivial steps I can take to achieve them.

  • Draw more. I could resolve to cover one sheet of paper per day with markings of some sort.
  • Exercise more. TODO. Don’t know what I can use as a trivial step for this.
  • Keep the house clean. How about take one object which is lying out of place and put it in its place per day.
  • Create a job I really love. For this one I’m thinking maybe “take a minute every day to imagine what it might be like to have my ideal job.” Imagining things is a good first step for difficult and complex changes.
  • Escape my caffiene addiction. Not sure about this one. Have to think.

Those are a few to start with. Just thinking.

Creativity & Mindfulness research

Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. – Creativity Research Journal – 16(2&3):261 – Abstract

Two hundred eight adults participated in 2 field experiments that investigated the effect of drawing as a mindfulness treatment. Novelty provokes mindfulness, and it was hypothesized that drawing is a method for introducing novelty. Experiment 1 showed that in novel settings, participants who drew the stimuli that they observed felt significantly more competent than those who simply observed. Experiment 2 demonstrated that in a familiar setting, instructions to engage in this task were not enough to overcome perceived incompetence. A mindfulness treatment, however, was effective in enabling participants overcome perceived incompetence. Taken together, the results demonstrate a relationship between mindful creativity and perceived competence.

Pity the article is $24. :(

Point Zero

I just read Point Zero: Creativity Without Limits by Michelle Cassou.

I liked it. I’m a little cautious about it though. Because Cassou seems to think she knows everything there is to know about True Creativity and how it works and where it comes from and where it’s going.

I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get a peek at how to do art just for its own sake — to just let images come out of you and onto the paper, receiving them yourself as they come, not planning and executing them according to a preconceived agenda. Such “getting out of the way and letting it happen” creation is tricky, and prone to creative “blocks,” and the book is all about resolving such blocks.

Points on which it agrees with what I had been thinking about artistic creativity from a mindful perspective:

  • It agrees that a minimal level of skill is not a sine qua non and that practiced expertise can have negative effects by locking you into preconceived ways of doing things.

  • It mistrusts preconceived plans and canned procedures.

  • It emphasizes process over product.

Points on which it disagrees:

  • Whereas Langer would say that the solution to mindless adherence to a particular way of looking at or doing things is to practice looking at or doing things in many different ways, from different perspectives, Cassou prefers trying to negate a given preconceived way of understanding things in order to move back past it to “Point Zero,” a place of all possibilities, where Creativity can show you the way to go on your Creative Quest.

I think that Cassou’s way of doing things is a way to promote mindful creativity; it is certainly dedicated to detecting and escaping mindlessness; but I think that it might be limiting on its own.

Still, a very good book for someone who wants to make their art something almost like a spiritual path, and a great guide if you want to really move in an original direction, following rather than leading your art.

Oh, Cassou’s first book, which I haven’t yet read, is Life, Paint, and Passion. At the end of Point Zero is a curious note to the effect that the partnership mentioned in Life, Paint and Passion has dissolved and each one has gone their separate way with their own philosophy. This makes me wonder what changed there and what happened to the partnership.